How to Develop a Forest School Mindset at Home: Problem Solving (pt2)

(or for those of you who need a jazzier title:)

How to encourage your kids to sort out their own junk so that you can drink your coffee in peace

Nothing is filling my every waking thought like quite like problem solving is these days. Everywhere I look I’m seeing opportunities to encourage problem solving, every interaction I have with my children ends with me raising my eyebrows and saying something to the effect of ‘do you feel like you really problem solved that before you brought it to me?’ Have I mentioned that I’m writing a book about this very subject?

Problem solving is pretty much the most fundamental component of forest school that no one talks about. We spend ages thinking about free-play, self-direction, teamwork and communication strategies but we don’t really spend a huge amount of time talking about what is actually going on during all of this enforced freedom.

Like good old Maria Montessori said,

“The exercises of practical life are formative activities, a work of adaptation to the environment. Such adaptation to the environment and efficient functioning therein is the very essence of a useful education.”

I just told you it was Maria Montessori.

This is a fundamental understanding that a person must possess if they are going to create a forest school environment in their own home. Because, if you forget about the trees and the insects and the mud and all of the heart-achingly beautiful beauty of the world around you, what you are left with is the ethos of forest school and for that you’re going to need to understand the nature of children and the nature of education.

(Wow, how am I going to fit all of that into a blog post?)

Here goes…. Children, when left to their own devices (and NO I do not mean their own electronic devices – I mean exactly what they get up to when they haven’t got their devices – wow, paradox… anyway) they will almost always choose to engage in a task which is both meaningful and challenging appropriate to their own understanding of the world and their developmental readiness to attack such concepts.

That is to say, when you give a child all the freedom in the world they don’t choose to sit around doing worksheets about the times tables. They may hover around for ages telling you they’re bored (good!) and they may use that super-annoying-whingey-tone of voice that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. But if you leave (ignore) them for long enough, inspiration will strike.

Once that inspiration strikes, in my family it almost always involves bits of rope but clearly all children will find different things inspirational, a keen observer will notice that the children somehow always manage to create a scenario which needs fixing, dealing with or modifying almost before they know what they’re doing.

What they do is create scenarios in which they are intrinsically required to apply their own problem solving strategies in order to address a perceived issue that is infringing on their ability to complete some other task. That task, as Montessori would tell you, will be a type of ‘work’ which feels essential to that particular child at that stage in their life. (Remember that it is not up to you to try to place value on that ‘task’ – just because we know the laundry needs doing does not mean that the stream does not also need damming.)

So children are both natural problem creators and problem solvers. I could just stop writing right here and tell you to stay out of it and they’ll all be just fine. And if you were to talk to people that see me at work, they may agree that this is indeed exactly what I do. However, I know that not all children have been raised within this ethos and so what I will do here is try to point you towards some strategies you can use to foster this mindset within your own family, no matter how structured life to this point has been.

First of all, you need to get some rope. Really. I mean, you also need to put loads of toys away (because your kids probably don’t use them anyway), because the key to a life of free exploration and expression is to not be encumbered by loads of stuff. Now go find some rope – and some pulleys and carabiners and blue-tac and string and a few safety pins and basically whatever stuff you can find out in the garage or in the backs of your drawers.

The average child will look on at this process with something akin to horror (why are you stealing my toys?) and fascination (mmmmm, ropes and pulleys….). Try to get them to focus on the fascination bit and promise them that their toys are just going to wherever they’re going temporarily. Set down this really amazing box full of stuff – then go make yourself a coffee.

You’re off the clock.

Except that you are going to get asked a million questions, you’re going to be asked to tie knots, you’re going to be asked to attach two objects which simply cannot be attached without a welder’s blowtorch. Which leads us nicely into the first most important strategy in encouraging problem solving mindsets: observe and deflect.

‘Oh, you’re having a hard time getting that string attached to that bit of plastic tube. How frustrating. I wonder what other strategies you could use to get them attached?’ Now drink your coffee.

This will seem very unnatural for a parent who is used to helping their child out of difficult situations, but trust me, you’re not going to be there when they’ve come out of a festival at midnight to discover that their car tyres are flat – so they might as well start learning to problem solve their own issues when the stakes are low.

If they’re not happy with this strategy (more honestly referred to as basically just ignoring their problem until they go away and solve it themselves) you’ll need to unleash the next weapon in your arsenal. The bit where you get them to say what it is that they need you to do.

Seriously, I’m fairly certain this is pretty much the most challenging thing about being a child. They come running to you, ‘I’m hungry!’, ‘Betty won’t play with me!’, ‘I just pushed Charlie down the stairs!’ Whatever. But they don’t ever come running to you with the solution already formed in their minds. Imagine this alternate universe, ‘Mum, is it alright if I have a snack or is it too close to dinner?’ ‘Please can you help me speak to Betty to explain to her that she is making me feel ostracised?’ or ‘Mummy, grab the first aid kit, Charlie is bleeding from his eyes and needs medical attention.’

But seriously. If you want to encourage a problem solving mindset, then you need to reinforce this strategy every single day, sometimes 10 or 15 times a day (even more now that we’re together every single livelong hour of the blessed day… no really I’m loving lockdown). The point is, they will come to you with their problems, it is your job to point this out and explain that they need to come to you with a solution. If I had a dime for every time I’ve said ‘That sounds like a problem. What is your solution?’ to my children then, rather than writing this I’d probably be sunning myself on a tropical island whilst swimming in a shiny silver pool of dimes. Probably.

Anyway, this leads us nicely onto the next trickiest part of being a parent and last vital skill I’m going to add to this little collection of problem solving strategies – the saying of ‘yes’. I once read some smart person or other talking about parenting and they said something like ‘it’s just as easy to say yes as it is to say no’. Well, technically this may be true (although ‘yes’ has three letters and ‘no’ only has two so this may not even technically be true), but in practise it is very hard to say yes when you come across your child straddling their window ledge holding a stick with a rope tied around it which is hanging over the brand new glass roof of the conservatory (yes, that happened).

But if you’re going to really encourage problem solving and not just let it happen when it’s inconsequential (would you like the blue socks or the red ones?), then you need to become a yes-(wo)man. Count to three silently in your head, try to think of a way to say yes to what they’re planning and then work from there.

Children really are extraordinarily good at working out whether something is within their skill-level and whether they’re going to get hurt pursuing a line of action. If you don’t believe me, go back to my blog post about risk assessing and re-read the bit about how children hardly ever die whilst engaged in such pursuits).

You are responsible however, as the facilitator and chief grown-up, for encouraging the children to explore all of the potential problems and solutions to their ideas before they proceed any further. For example: ‘What might happen to that stick you’ve got extended over the roof?’ – ‘Well I guess I could drop it.’ – ‘Oh right. And what might happen if you drop it?’ etc.

Good problem solvers will not only think about the things that could go wrong, they will also think about the things that will go right. An ability to think in a 360 degree fashion about any given situation is the hallmark of a good problem solver. Parents can encourage this by asking lots of ‘yes, and’ style questions as well as encouraging a ‘how is that going to end’ approach to thinking through every possible scenario.

If these suggestions all sound too far outside of your comfort zone, then you are the perfect candidate for embracing them. I’m sure I’ve heard some other smart person say something about how nothing that is worth doing is easy, and never is that more true than it is with letting your children loose with ropes and heights.

But it is true that it is worth it – because children need one thing more than any other if they are going to grow into really good problem solvers. They need problems. And they need to be left to solve them on their own.

So go on, find some stuff, give it to your kids and then go make a cup of coffee. That’s where I’m going.

Join me at some point in the near future, where I will discuss parts three of How to develop a Forest School Mindset at Home: Conflict Management (3).

(The content of this article is drawn from my latest work How to Nurture a Problem Solver which currently does not have a publisher. So if you’re a publisher or agent who likes my work, feel free to get in touch!)

These blogs are being written and are free for you to enjoy, read and share. If you feel that you can donate please do, but if not please don’t feel obliged. A simple share on social media is great for getting the word out!

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